I first came to China in 2006 to advance my professional career and for the personal growth that comes with living abroad. When I decided to move, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I did not have any Chinese friends, didn’t understand the culture and most of all couldn’t even say hello in Chinese. But from what I could see on TV and newspapers, it seemed that the entire world was beginning to focus on this place. (The Chinese Mainland is correctly nicknamed “大陆”--Da Lu)
Upon arrival I was reading this book about the do’s & don’ts of doing business in China. I remember it saying things like, the western idea of time and the Chinese idea are completely different. That the levels of ethical standards were not the same as what we were accustomed to. That contracts are not as important for China as they are in a western negotiation. In fact, in the west, the contract signals the conclusion of negotiation, where in China the signing of the contract signals the beginning of the negotiation. Then there was this concept of “关系” (Guanxi) or relationships within your personal network.
Please understand, when I moved to China, this was not my first time living abroad. I had already lived and/or studied in Spain, Cuba & Brazil but nothing could have prepared me for what I would experience. Was the book correct? Yes and no. It was correct because the facts were accurate. Meaning, relationships are extremely important if you want to get anything done. Contracts do signal that the negotiation has started but do understand this does not bind both parties to the language agreed upon. And it is certainly true that a “long” or “short” time is relative. But what the book could not explain was why these things are true. In my first professional experience, I was not expected to learn Chinese nor was I in an environment where it was encouraged but my Chinese manager told me that I should “jump in the water” and get started learning because that would teach me a lot about why things were the way they were. So I took a step back and really began to investigate. There was so much to learn. I found there was a reason attached to everything that I thought was different. Time was seen differently because no matter what I thought in my western mind, the Chinese were used to work and were expected to work their entire life. Here the company is expected to take care of the employee. In exchange, the employee is paid a menial salary and expected to work diligently for the company/country.
So whether or not my order is fulfilled to the highest of my western standard, the Chinese employee was fully expecting to work at this company tomorrow and the next day and the next. So me attempting to push the employee to meet my standard and threatening to tell his boss or reprimand him was completely worthless. Also, pushing a delivery date when the factory told me there was a holiday coming was worthless. And lastly, trying to hurry and finalize a negotiation so that work could start would certainly create waste.
But the more I studied and practiced the Chinese way, the better projects went. And that is not exclusively for business. That also went for paying my cell phone bill, negotiating with my landlord and/or finding my way to the airport. In everything one does in this country, there is your way to do it and there is the Chinese way. Yes, you can do it your way, but it is much easier to catch bees with honey…..I would suggest any expat serious about living in China, roll up their sleeves and learn the Chinese way. Not to say it will be the most efficient or that you will even understand what is going on but you will accomplish the goal more often than attempting to attach a western ideal to a Chinese process.
What helped me the most was the other expats within my circle of friends that were having the same problems. We were literally from all over the world. Spain, Argentina, USA, Canada, Peru, etc. But the thing we had in common was that here in China, we were all foreigners. Soon, we put our differences aside and began to bond. We bonded through talking about our difficulties. Our challenges with the language, the expectations, and last but certainly not least the drinking culture intertwined with Chinese business dinners. We found that we all aspired to do business in China, but every time we went out with our Chinese “friends” on a business outing they would do their best to get us inebriated on “白酒” (pronounced “bai jiu”) or Chinese white wine. And more often than not, it worked! We didn’t last until the end of the first bottle. So we decided to craft a plan that would help us not to be seen as “light weights”.
We began meeting every Sunday in a different Chinese restaurant that we would rotate in selecting and have a 白酒 （Chinese white wine) dinner of our own. At this dinner, we would reserve a room and eat, talk, and drink a bottle. In the beginning, we all had an extremely low tolerance and the night would end before it started for most of us. But soon, we learned that one should eat as you drink and pace yourself. Soon we were up to two bottles and had tried food from all over the country (Nanjing has restaurants from all over China)!
Our Chinese counterparts were surprised when we began to invite them out for dinner. From then on, doing business in China has gone to a new level for all of us. Now, each of the friends from our dinners has moved forward with his career in China and is doing better now that when he arrived. Not to say that everyone will succeed in China but if you learn and practice the Chinese way, you are definitely increasing your odds.